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New research about the way we live

Why we make bad choices about food
Why we make bad choices about food

Previous studies have shown that people tend to eat more when food is served on a larger plate, from a bigger package or if it’s labeled “low fat.” Now a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research has found that simply adding healthy items to a menu does not promote better food choices by consumers.

The study, led by Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University, suggests that people’s decision-making about food is much more complex than anyone imagined. For example, we may like the idea of seeing healthy options on a restaurant menu, fast-food display or vending machine, but that doesn’t mean we will choose them.

In other words, simply arming people with information about food is not enough. “There is a notion that if we all just had the full nutritional information on menu or food items, we would choose rationally,” Dr. Fitzsimons says. “But that isn’t so. There are too many unconscious environmental cues that prove to be too strong.”

Most surprisingly, when healthier options did become available on a menu, study participants who were thought to have the “highest self-control” were actually more likely to pick the least healthy offering. Participants who were considered “more likely to make unhealthy choices” showed the most self-control.

Perhaps just thinking about fulfilling the goal of eating better “frees us up,” Dr. Fitzsimons suggests. Then we can move on to our next goal—to “maximize” our enjoyment. Indeed, the surprisingly poor decisions people make when healthier options become available have led him to conclude that, in effect, “we trick our brains into allowing us to make more indulgent food selections” than we would normally make.

When we walk into a fast-food restaurant, the deck is stacked against us, Dr. Fitzsimons says. “The only safe bet is to avoid them. To be healthy, we have to consciously override our base impulses. Our bodies and brains are still driven to maximize caloric intake. Those sugary and greasy foods are always going to appeal to us.”

His advice to schools: don’t just add a few healthy items to your cafeteria menu. “Get all of the pizza, soft drinks and junk off of there.”

And that should apply to our homes as well.

—Adapted from Psychology Today

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